Some 60 years ago, a bout of unanticipated anti-Semitism was thrust upon me, the effects of which carry over through today and likely beyond.
I entered my 1964 second semester at the University of Illinois, Navy Pier campus (Chicago) still naive, but generally happy with my social adjustment since leaving the high school safety net for the so-called higher education “big leagues.” One compulsory Rhetoric program was done and one remained. I had been advised by seasoned upper-class students to get this reputed ‘difficult obligation’ done early and quickly. Sensing drama about this requirement, I felt lucky not to find any of my first semester classes problematic. Yet, that luck was not destined to carry forward.
I purposely arrived early for the first day of Rhetoric 2 classroom hoping to snag an open seat in the front row. Within minutes, our class instructor entered and firmly closed the door. She greeted the class with a menacing directive; "Jews stand up!" To which three of us, all male meekly complied. The look on my fellow classmate’s faces was one of confusion as if we could not believe our ears. We were then instructed to take seats in the back of the classroom summarily vacated by African-American students who eagerly leapt forward to replace us. The rest of that class was a blur in retrospect.
Hoping the above was just a bad dream, the next week I found myself the "lone-Jew" in the class. The others, I would later learn, quietly dropped this class in the time allowed and moved on. There was no subsequent Liberal Arts and Sciences (L.A.S.) Departmental follow-up.
For me, no practical alternatives remained.
Receiving smirks from my remaining classmates and no recognition from the instructor, I felt myself a pariah,
Exasperated, I confided in my mother as to what I was enduring since day one. We methodically went over my options, which at that point appeared minimal, at best, As such, it was agreed that I simply would “keep my mouth shut, do my work to the best of my ability, maintain a low profile, and just get through with her class, as quickly as possible. Confrontation was not an option.
The female instructor appeared not that much older than I, perhaps in her late twenties to early thirties. She was not unattractive, but carried herself with an air of disdain, at least as far as I was concerned.
I thought if I could just get through with her silent treatment, the novelty of punishing a Jew for nothing more than following his religious faith might wear off and I could get on with my primary task of learning difficult material in a less hostile environment.
I was not totally unfamiliar with some limited anti-Jewish targeting on elementary and high school playgrounds, but this was a higher degree of discrimination. That said, World War 2 and its “Final Solution” was over some 18 years earlier, but apparently the hatred that took 1 ½ million Jewish babies and children’s lives, as well as 4 ½ million Jewish adults, grandparents, infirm and well lives, lived on.
I was to learn that this hatred was excluded from the recourse provided by Title Vl of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; that was just coming into its own.
My father and his brother educated me about their ways of dealing with anti-Jew guff during their time. They repeatedly emphasized, “... the manifestations of such ‘crap’ historically never goes away of its own accord. Only through confrontations, legal and otherwise might the haters understand the wisdom of backing off. After all, “Bullies do what they do, because they can.”Typically, they test the waters to see how much they can get away with before upping the ante of violence to the next degree. Doing nothing was never a viable option and on occasion proved deadly.”
As such, my father, Lawrence and a group of his Jewish and non-Jewish Division Street Pool Hall tough guys decided that brutalized Jews needed to be avenged. It was time to tune-up Nazi sympathizer bullies who enjoyed marching through Jewish neighborhoods; taunting, threatening and beating Jews as victims of opportunity in their Westside neighborhoods. The perpetrators were soon to be taught a lesson that they would never forget, at least in that Chicago neighborhood. When pushed hard enough the Jews fought back and did not silently stand down.
Dad proudly, but modestly informed me that he never looked for trouble, but also never ran from it; to make the point that the pro-Nazis never came back to march in his Division Street neighborhood again. Yet, he and my uncle and a number of the other Jews and their non-Jewish supporters who fought the pro-Nazi agitators had to appear in court to contest charges after their arrest by the Chicago police department.
The latter nevertheless were impressed and looked at Jews differently after that episode.
My situation was of course vastly different from my dads, as I thought confrontation was not a viable option. Who could I count upon to back me up?
I bemoaned my fate, and rhetorically asked, “Why me?”
That answer was to be clearly revealed in years to come.
I did as my mother, Sandra, advised; yet, found my treatment in class becoming progressively more abusive. I turned in all of my assignments in a timely manner, which became more of a challenge when I had to prepare an essay on Thorstein Veblen’s piece, “Theory of the Leisure Class.” This was a frightening piece of literature, which I nevertheless meticulously researched, and documented. I then put together and submitted what I thought to be a formidable interpretation essay.
Subsequently, I was called up to the instructor's desk, at the end of class. Making sure we were alone, she told me, "No matter how hard you work, or whatever you do, I am going to fail you. If you should tell anyone what I said or what I have done, I will simply deny it and who is going to believe you over me?"
Powerless and now frightened, I knew I had no choice, but to endure under the most hostile of learning circumstances. This did affect my other classes, as well as my personal life and my health, all of which I kept silently to myself.
I ended her course with a "D."
I decided I would never allow myself to be so helpless and easily targeted as I was. “Never again,” had a special meaning for me from that point forward.
Two years later, after transferring to the newly constructed University of Illinois, Chicago Circle campus, and while still harboring the relatively fresh wounds from being the object of blatant religious discrimination, I sought out an L.A.S. Dean who I assisted in developing the first University of Illinois, Chicago Campus "Student-Faculty Advisory Committee." I also assisted in bringing about a student directed, "Teacher/Instructor-Evaluation'' process.
By that time, I could only imagine my bigoted instructor being long gone, yet the memory of her abuse set the groundwork for my subsequent lifetime in seeking justice against prejudice, in any form and wherever it raised its ugly head; and not exclusively limited to anti-Semitism.
Fast forward to the present, and the hate once openly practiced against our Black brothers and sisters on campus, now appears focused upon our Jewish children, grandchildren and their non-Jewish supporters on campuses across America. This hostile, discriminating, double-standard learning environment appears in my opinion only meekly, if at all contested by elements of departmental administrators. Campus presidents and their administrations should know better.
Today's provocateurs appear more sophisticated and more learned as to how to play the system using tactics not limited to revising history to justify an agenda of delegitimizing Israel, as well as Jews via “Free Speech” entitlements. Telling lies over and over seemingly gave the provocateurs some misbegotten credibility.
Some 60 years ago I was intimidated by antisemitic discrimination into silence at the University of Illinois, Chicago Navy Pier campus. Recently, to learn how far the University of Illinois and its administration handles hostilities directed towards Jews/Israel, I emailed President Killeen and an administrative representative responded with “these incidents are handled “and not willing to elaborate further about the protocol for such. Neither the President nor his staff saw fit to follow up with my polite requests.
I hope at this point in time school administrations from the President on down, at the very least we can all agree baseless, destructive hatred must not be ignored or tolerated within the halls of higher education, or anywhere else for that matter in today’s America. Lest others in educational authority forget, Jews have contributed with distinction in many areas to society, including medicine, law, and business. They served in every war America fought and gave their lives to maintain its constitutional government; unlike their current adversaries who seemingly favor destruction, polarization and destabilization.
Bruce Portnoyis author of the Geo-political thriller, First, the ‘Saturday People’,and then the…; and Opinion Piece contributor to the Jerusalem Post, Miami Herald, Washington Examiner and other media resources.